IT’S NO SECRET that America has a problem with homelessness.
We’ve trained ourselves to ignore homeless people when we pass them on the streets, especially here in Los Angeles, where you can easily allow yourself to get lost in the celluloid glamour of the American Dream without having to acknowledge the grim reality check that 40,000 homeless people will provide you. Today, millions of people around the country, not just Los Angeles, will be celebrating the sacrifices and services that many of this nation’s military veterans have provided, without realizing that the homeless people they pass every day on the way to work are most likely veterans themselves.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, of the approximately 22.5 million veterans living in the U.S. as of 2014, “between 529,000 and 840,000 veterans are homeless at some time during the year.” It’s important to remember that these numbers are rough estimates — skewing towards the conservative side — since many homeless people don’t stay in the same locations for very long, making a definitive census of the homeless population in any given city almost impossible to achieve. Despite the difficulty of tracking and counting homeless people, national data from homeless shelters and centers suggest that on any given night, more than 300,000 U.S. veterans are living on the streets or using services provided by shelters. Although homelessness affects both male and female veterans, of all ethnic backgrounds, statistics compiled by the two organizations mentioned above indicate that male veterans and Hispanic and black veterans experience homelessness at alarming rates: “40 percent of all homeless veterans are African American or Hispanic,” while 20% of the male homeless population at large are veterans.
As Lady Clever author Holly Grigg-Spall has covered, one of the primary reasons that veterans are prone to homelessness — veterans between the ages of 18 and 30 are twice as likely to experience homelessness than their civilian counterparts — is our society’s attitude towards mental health and illness. Mental health issues and disabilities acquired during combat, like PTSD and depression – and the substance abuse issues that often arise from them – contribute to homelessness more than any other factor does. Without transferable career skills with which to find gainful employment or a strong social network to tap, many veterans with mental health issues and substance abuse problems end up without a stable residence. A lack of proper medical treatment and the harsh realities of living on the streets can only serve to exacerbate the mental health issues that contribute to these veterans ending up on the street in the first place, until they’re reduced to the stereotypical image of the raving, dirty, homeless bum spouting nonsense. We’ve all seen that person, and we’ve all made sure not to make eye contact or otherwise interact with them as we do our best to move quickly onward to our destinations. Perhaps it’s a general lack of understanding of mental health issues, or a belief that the mentally ill are inherently dangerous, or a deep-seated fear that mental illness can easily affect us, too. Whatever the reason, society’s general treatment of homeless people – and especially homeless people who exhibit symptoms of mental health problems – effectively isolates this group of people and makes them invisible. This self-willed blindness doesn’t fix any problems and only makes existing ones worse and, in the case of homeless veterans, it repays their service to the country with scorn and derision.
Knowing that there are homeless people, and homeless veterans, is not the same as making an effort to help those homeless people and veterans. The National Coalition For Homeless Veterans recommends people get involved in a number of tangible ways, such as: making donations (to homeless service providers), contacting politicians and elected officials, participating in homeless coalitions (or starting your own), and volunteering with homeless service providers. It’s these kinds of actions that will honor the sacrifices of veterans, homeless or otherwise, a thousand times more than a tweet or status update will.
For more information on homelessness and how it affects veterans, visit the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, and the National Alliance to End Homelessness.